"Combining a creative, atmospheric story with a fine performance by Lon Chaney makes "The Penalty" an effective and memorable suspense classic. In one of his earliest leading roles, Chaney is a complete success, both in defining an unusual character and in bringing out everything inside the mind of the sinister "Blizzard". You can already see his determination to make his character visually convincing and flawless, even at the cost of great discomfort. Chaney also shows, as he would so many times, his rare skill in using facial expressions and gestures to show just the right amount of emotion and intensity. The story is quite interesting in itself, and though it slightly stretches plausibility at times, it is by no means predictable. The brief opening scene of the childhood accident efficiently sets up the background for the strange world dominated by Chaney's vengeful character when he becomes an adult. From there, the well-crafted story keeps you interested and keeps you guessing. The settings are well-chosen, creating an interesting and appropriate atmosphere, with Blizzard's strange hideout and the sculptress's cluttered studio both standing in contrast with the respectable-looking Dr. Ferris and the other characters. A mere account of the events in the story would not convey the success of the movie in creating a distinctive world in which the characters come to life. This is also a case in which a silent film is probably more effective than a sound film would have been. One of the main flaws in many movies of this type is the vapid dialogue that dissipates the tension through unintentional humor. Here, the title cards need only convey some basic ideas - the rest of it is handled without sound by Chaney, by the rest of the cast, and by the production crew who put everything together so well."
Lon Chaney plays a cripple who has been used by a Chinatown gang to commit various crimes. He's sent away on his newest job where he falls in love with a girl but it turns out his job is to kill her father. As usual, Chaney gives a remarkable performance and I have no problem calling him one of the greatest actors ever. He perfectly captures all the right emotions for the role and his physical appearance of a cripple is remarkable. Two other highlights include a bank being blown up and an earthquake that happens in the film. The special effects are very good and the suspense and drama are very high.
"Stella Maris (Mary Pickford) was born paralyzed and is unable to walk. Her wealthy parents try to prevent her from being exposed to all the bad that is happening in the world. She is not allowed to leave her room in a London mansion and is bound to her bed. Her door even has a sign on it which says: "All unhappiness and world wisdom leave outside. Those without smiles need not enter." Stella has no idea a war is going on in the world and that there are poor and hungry people.
John Risca (Conway Tearle) is a well-known journalist and a friend of the family. He has been unhappily married to Louise for six years now and frequently visits Stella. John wants Stella to think he is perfect and lies about being married. Louise, meanwhile, wants a servant in her house and hires orphan Unity Blake (also Mary Pickford). Unity is uneducated and has been deprived and mistreated for her entire life. This resulted in her being afraid of everyone.
One night, a drunk Louise gives Unity the order to get some groceries from the supermarket. Unity does as told and on her way back, the food is stolen by kids. She returns to the home only to get beaten up by an outraged Louise. Unity is severely hurt and Louise gets arrested. It is announced she will have to serve three years in prison. John is kinder to Unity and adopts her. Unity is very grateful and falls in love with him. John himself is only interested in Stella. John wishes Unity to be raised at the Blount's residence, but they don't want her. They prevent her from meeting Stella, fearing Stella will notice there are suffering people in the world. They finally convince John to raise Unity at Aunt Gladys' house.
In order to make John fall in love with her, Unity starts to educate herself. Meanwhile, Stella gets an operation and is able to walk after three years. She meets John and they fall in love. One day she decides to give John a surprise visit. Louise, who has just been released from jail, opens the door and tells Stella the truth about her marriage. Stella is heartbroken.
Meanwhile, Unity wants to do John a favor by killing Louise. She realizes she and John never can be a couple and writes him a note which says he should get together with Stella. She next kills herself, making the police think it was a revenge murder. John is reunited with Stella and they marry."